Today, as I watched Jeremy Corbyn standing on a street in London with a microphone, blaming Margaret Thatcher for Britain’s decision to leave the EU, I couldn’t help but think of this film.
This is Nicolae Ceausescu, former communist dictator of Romania, making his last speech. He had been making speeches like this to his people for years, and they had listened, because they knew the secret police would come for them if they didn’t. But by this point, the system was crumbling, and they knew it. They rose up; they refused to listen. On the dictator’s face, you can see the confusion. What can be happening here? How can I stop it? How do I make things go back to normal? But there is a new normal now.
My point is not to compare Jeremy Corbyn to a communist dictator. He doesn’t seem like he’d be a very effective one. My point is nothing to do with Corbyn: it’s a wider observation. The entire political class has been frozen into shock by the Brexit vote. So has the media. So, more broadly, has the liberal bourgeoisie which commands and controls British culture. They didn’t expect it, they don’t understand it, and they are flailing about for explanations. The current favourite is that everyone who voted to leave the EU is an uneducated, small-minded racist who now regrets what they’ve done. If only they had listened to their betters, this would not have happened.
This seems like a way of dealing with the grief; not just the grief of the result, but the grief as the realisation dawns that this is the new normal. It is not going back to how it was. Something has snapped now. Something is new.
Since I started researching Real England in around 2006, I’ve been aware of the rising tide of anger, exclusion and unhappiness across the UK in general and England in particular. I have written about it too many times to mention. Every time, I have tried to say: look at this. It isn’t going away. It is only going to get stronger. This doesn’t make me prescient; plenty of other people saw it too. But the ‘elite’, if we must use that word, were either clueless about what was happening, or were too invested in the normal to listen, or simply had no idea how to change it. I think that John Gray, writing in this week’s New Statesman, is spot on when he says this:
As it is being used today, “populism” is a term of abuse applied by establishment thinkers to people whose lives they have not troubled to understand. A revolt of the masses is under way, but it is one in which those who have shaped policies over the past twenty years are more remote from reality than the ordinary men and women at whom they like to sneer. The interaction of a dysfunctional single currency and destructive austerity policies with the financial crisis has left most of Europe economically stagnant and parts of it blighted with unemployment on a scale unknown since the Thirties. At the same time European institutions have been paralysed by the migrant crisis. Floundering under the weight of problems it cannot solve or that it has even created, the EU has demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that it lacks the capacity for effective action and is incapable of reform … Europe’s image as a safe option has given way to the realisation that it is a failed experiment. A majority of British voters grasped this fact, which none of our establishments has yet understood.
Again, the normal is churning and changing and being made new. It looks like we are entering a post-liberal age. Liberalism, both economic and social, has had a twenty five year run since Ceausescu was shot in a courtyard by his own people. It is falling apart now, under the weight of its own contradictions, and the new normal is coming. No-one knows yet quite what it will look like, but it will not look anything like the old one.